Libraries in danger – a different angle

Chair of the Historic Libraries Forum, Katie Flanagan, provided us with the following guest post regarding the management of historic book collections in libraries.


Repeatedly we’ve seen reports in the media about public libraries selling off their rare book collections (often referred to as “antiquarian books” or “historic books”). Although the Historic Libraries Forum, alongside other bodies, tries to offer advice to all kinds of libraries with historic collections, we are sometimes too late hearing about the sale to be able to prevent the loss of the books overseas and/or into private hands. We approached Voices for the Library as a way of reaching out to public libraries with these collections, hopefully to offer advice and support before collections have to be sold, and prevent the negative publicity that often results for these libraries.

What are these collections? Many public libraries have some older books (published before 1850, although some may be more recent). Often they may be part of a “hidden collection”, languishing in a cupboard or basement, uncatalogued and therefore not used. Sometimes they were given to the library as a donation by someone with local connections; sometimes they were purchased by former librarians as a resource, intended for the use of local people.

Books like these aren’t like 20th and 21st century textbooks, to be weeded when a new edition comes along, so the principles of collection management that apply to the main parts of the library’s collection don’t apply here. Even if the “same” book appears in the collection in a later edition, the earlier one represents a different version, an important element of its printing history, and not simply an out-of-date edition. These books are not only interesting because of their content. Early printed books weren’t bound uniformly before being sold, as books are now, so each binding is unique to the book, and represents a resource for historians. Another growth area of study is the history of reading, ownership of the books themselves and how books were used. This can be traced through ownership marks (called “provenance”), such as book-plates, inscriptions and annotations on the text.

To a public library facing the current economic challenges, the decision of how to deal with books like these may seem obvious. Selling them off removes books that are taking up space, perhaps not being used and raises money for the library. But it isn’t as simple as this. Selling off rare or historical books can be a short-sighted measure, particularly (as we have seen lately) if the proceeds are put towards acquiring new technology that will itself be out-of-date in a few years. Moreover, books that were given to the library as a bequest often came with conditions attached: for example, that the collection be maintained complete and in perpetuity for the use of the people of the town. Conditions such as these still hold, even centuries later.

As a resource, a collection of books given as a bequest is far more valuable together than split into separate lots because of what they can tell us about how people collected. Some public libraries have been able to realise this value in a variety of ways. Manchester Public Library, for instance, has placed images from their rare books and special collections on Flickr, as well as welcoming anyone who wants to see them in person. Rare books from Cardiff public library now have a safe home at Cardiff University, where they can still be accessed by local people, as well as used for research. Obviously, collections that aren’t catalogued aren’t accessible, as how can people know that they are there? They may not be included in the library catalogue, but they may have been catalogued in the past and included in union catalogues such as the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) or the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).

What can you do if your library owns some rare books? Advice about promotion, cataloguing and conservation are available from a number of bodies, including the Historic Libraries Forum, the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and the Bibliographical Society. If your library is struggling to provide suitable storage for books like these often a satisfactory conclusion can be reached through making contacts at a local university library, thus ensuring the books still remain accessible to the local population. The CILIP RBSCG has a Disposals policy freely available on its website, which includes advice about ensuring access to the books continues into the future.

Katie Flanagan

Chair, Historic Libraries Forum

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